The Sunday Star (Used by permission)
• When children become pawns in the battle
A young mother in Ipoh turned to the MCA Public Services and Complaints Department last month for help in finding her daughter who had been snatched away by her ex-husband. Coping with the absence of a child or children after a marriage fails is heartbreaking, as some estranged parents are finding out.
ONE of the happiest moments in Prasanth’s* life is when his then one-year-old daughter uttered the word accha (Father) for the first time. That was on Christmas Day two years ago, and it was a perfect present for him.
These days, though, Prasanth, a sales executive, has to sometimes hear the most hurtful things from her. She would tell Prasanth “I only want anna (mother) and pathi (grandmother). I don’t want accha,” before slamming down the phone.
“How does she know how to say things like that? She is only three years old,” relates a distraught sounding Prasanth during a telephone interview.
Prasanth, 43, is a victim of parental alienation, a situation where one parent, after a marriage breaks down in a bad way, intentionally attempts to alienate his or her child from the other parent, by poisoning his/her mind, and usually succeeds. (www.pemalik.org). It is a situation that affects both fathers and mothers.
When divorce or custody proceedings are going on, the domineering parent will not allow access of the child to the other parent, says lawyer Lee Swee Seng.
“The parent will say that the child has tuition or co-curricular school activities. They will make up any excuse to prevent the other parent from having any contact with the child,” he explains.
In worse case scenarios, children can be snatched away, as happened to the young mother in Ipoh whose plight was reported in a local English tabloid last month.
When Prasanth’s marriage broke down, his wife and daughter moved to Penang, and he claims he was not allowed to see the child.
“It is one of the worst feelings that any father could go through,” says Prasanth who lives in Perak.
The only time he was permitted to see his daughter was when she came for her medical check-up, he says. And even then, it was only for five minutes – to pay for her medical bill, he adds.
“When she was a baby, I used to jump when she cried. Sometimes, I even dream of her crying only to wake up alone at night,” says Prasanth, who took to overeating and even had to take sleeping pills to cope with the loss of his daughter.
For want of something to do, he took up studying law, and is in the midst of completing his degree.
Recently, his daughter went to live with his brother-in-law, a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur.
“He knew my legal rights to visit my daughter,” says Prasanth. So, every Saturday, he takes a bus to Kuala Lumpur to visit his daughter for the day.
“She is always excited and jumping. When it’s time to go back, I try not to see her, as both of us will start crying,” he says.
Harjit Kaur*, 42, says she had to endure two months of anguish when she couldn’t see her one-and-a-half-year-old son, who was taken away by her husband.
Her marriage was on the rocks, she says, but she was fine about ending it: all she wanted was her son.
Harjit had no choice but to go to court to get interim custody of the boy. During the process, she was only granted access during the weekends.
“The judge was concerned that I could not look after him when I went to work. Furthermore the judge did not want to uproot the child from his environment,” says Harjit.
In the end, her son chose to stay with his father, a decision that Harjit claims is due to his wanting to be with his paternal grandmother.
“He is very diplomatic and wanted to keep the peace,” she says.
“Later on, my son told me his grandmother used to talk bad about me.”
Nowadays, Harjit gets to see her son who is 11 during weekends and holidays.
Sia*, another father who has faced problems gaining access to his children, has to be persuaded before he agrees to relate his story.
And when he finally opens up, his voice is tinged with bitterness as he describes the ordeal he has been through in the past few years since his marriage ended and his wife took the children with her.
Sia, a businessman, was married at the age of 32 after one year of courting his wife. Two years later, the couple had a daughter, and Sia proclaimed himself to be the “happiest man in the world.” They had a son two years after their daughter was born, and life was perfect, he says.
They had a maid, cars and a large house and his relationship with his children was good. But then the economic crisis hit the country in the late 90s and changed everything.
“I worked very hard to pay off the loans and instalments for the house and cars. In the process, I spent long hours at work but I still managed to pay off the loans and took on the responsibilities as any father should,” he says.
At one point, he says, he did not see his kids for almost nine months as he was avoiding being served divorce papers.
“My focus was lost and I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep well and I learnt the meaning of depression in my prime years. There was a sudden emptiness. It felt like everything was taken away from me,” he relates.
Sia can see his children once a week now, but he feels it’s like being “an uncle” to them.
“I get to see my nephews and nieces even more,” he laments.
And even when he does see them, the situation is always tense at the start, says Sia, who is convinced that their mother has brainwashed them.
“They will be cautious for about half an hour and try to dictate the terms. Without their mother’s influence, they are free to express themselves,” he says.
Sia recalls once telling his daughter to pray for the well-being of the family, but she told him it was not possible.
“That is not the way a child should talk to a father,” he says.
Deep down, though, Sia believes his children love him, and he shows a text message he received from his son enquiring about his well-being.
The last time engineer Adam Johan*, 56, saw his nine-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son was two years ago in their school when he went to enquire about their progress from the teachers.
When his marriage ended a few years ago, his wife was given interim custody of the children, and he was allowed to visit them once a week.
However, he doesn’t even get to exercise the right to visit his two children because his wife doesn’t allow him to do so. Adam can take his wife to court for contempt, but he does not want to make things worse.
“I don’t want to antagonise things. Why make things worse for the child and the whole situation,” says Adam who is now fighting for custody of his children.
Adam believes that both parents should get equal access to their kids as long as neither parent is abusive.
Adam Johan, a member of Pemalik (Association Against Parental Alienation Kuala Lumpur and Selangor), is looking for people who are in a similar situation. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Names have been changed for privacy
When children become pawns in the battle
IT is the children who suffer the most when the “battle” for their custody takes place between parents.
“It is a tense moment when the family court judge asks the child who they want to follow. They are sometimes not sure what to answer. They are torn between both parents,” says Lee Swee Seng, a lawyer with experience in family law.
“The child is also used as a bargaining chip in the battle. I have seen some friends of children grow up insecure and have stereotypes about trust issues,” he adds.
Francis Yeoh C. L, Secretary of the Association Against Parental Alienation Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (Pemalik) says that both parents are vital when it comes to the upbringing of a child.
“A mother can’t replace a father and vice versa.
“Taking out either side will only cause an imbalance,” he says.
The most practical solution, according to Yeoh, would be joint custody where children spend equal time with both parents.
“Why make it difficult for the children? Parents should keep channels of communication open among children for the sake of the child,” says Lee who is also president of Focus on the Family (Malaysia), a non-profit organisation that promotes traditional family values.
“There should be more exploration of mediation and counselling before cases are brought to court. It is good for the couples and ultimately their children,” he says.
Meanwhile, Pemalik is advocating for a change in some laws, which generally lean towards the mother in divorce and custody cases.
For example, the Law Reform Act (Section 88 (3) – Marriage & Divorce Act 1976, which says “There shall be a rebuttable presumption that it is for the good of a child below the age of seven years to be with his or her mother but in deciding whether that presumption applies to the facts of any particular case, the court shall have regard to the undesirability of disturbing the life of a child by changes of custody.”
“This law does not apply to this day and age as the roles of mothers have changed,” says Pemalik President Ratna R. S.
“Developed countries such as Canada, the US, Singapore and Australia who once had similar laws have long abolished them,” he adds. – By Rashvinjeet S. Bedi